Full Cycle (System of the World)

London, 1714.

Here ends an immense saga, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It’s been three years in the reading, a tome each late spring stretching through the dog days of summer. But it’s a welcome tradition. If the first novel was vibrant exploration of the scientific revolution from the ground floor, and the second a rousing picaresque romance of swashbuckling and espionage, the third is an international finance potboiler with philosophical aspirations. In this final act, Jack and Eliza slip into the shadows, and Daniel Waterhouse steps once again to center stage.

He’s older now, perhaps wiser, if more skeptical. He’s seen England’s glorious revolution, the first rough (and oft ghastly) experiments of the Royal Society, even lived through naval assault by the dread pirate Blackbeard. Now, however, he must reconcile Newton and Leibniz, uncover the dastardly plots of Jack the Coiner and avoid being blown to smithereens by clockwork phosphorous bombs.

The self-seriousness of so much historical fiction has been replaced with a sarcastic wit and knowing nod to man’s folly. For all the great men that populate the era, Stephenson hints that true change is wrought on the backs of the nameless many, of which Waterhouse is one. Daniel is never attributed any grand theories, but he’s a tireless agent of change.

A high point of the book is a debate between Isaac Newton and Leibniz. The moderator is Princes Catherine, soon to inherit the throne of England. She wants to unite the two savants (who are squabbling primarily over the invention of Calculus), but also for their respective philosophies play nice with Christian thought. This is a fascinating battle, a duel of ideas and motives. Both men attempt to reconcile their scientific models with a theistic worldview. Newton can be a bit cranky and severe (in his defense of both the currency and alchemy), and Leibniz loyalties often lie with the highest paying nobleman. But they are both brilliant men.

These passages are highly relevant even now as a vitriolic war is waged between fundamentalists of two hues – creationists and atheists, those who maintain some sort of faith and those who decry it. Both Newton and Leibniz present their ideas (pp.677-678)-

Newton: * “God does not merely compose the objects and forces that were given to Him, but is Himself an Author of those objects and forces. Author, and preserver. Nothing happens in this world without His government and His inspection. Think of Him not as watch-maker but as a King.” *


Leibniz: * “I believe that God takes part in the world’s workings at every moment – but not in the sense of mending it when it has gone awry. To say otherwise is to say God makes mistakes, and changes His mind. Instead of which I believe in a pre-established harmony, reflecting that God has foreseen all, and provided for it.”*

But Waterhouse steps in with a prescient call for moderation (masked as humble skepticism).

Waterhouse: “I’d have you know that my Stupidity and my Skepticism are two sides of the same coin, and are of a very particular kind, which is carefully thought out… As a result of studying Natural Philosophy we have got glimmerings of the immensity and complexity of the Universe that were not available to anyone until of late, and are known only to a few now. The imbalance between the grand mysteries of the Universe as opposed to our own feeble faculties, leads us to set very modest expectations as to what we shall and shan’t be able to understand – and makes us passing suspicious of anyone who propounds dogma or seems to phant’sy he has got it all figured out.”

There are exciting bits, of course, with countless sword fights, spy-games, 18th century IEDs, even a cannon duel ala Wolf Parade. And the writing is as animated and lively as its been throughout the cycle – even long segments of London geography colored with scoundrels and miscreants, scheming noblemen and brutish men in arms. Stephenson’s taken his fascination with systems of all sorts and crafted it into honest literature (Pynchon’s heir?)

The system of the world isn’t composed of immovable concrete blocks or statues. Instead, the system is like the cogs of an enormous clockwork, ratcheting along incrementally and unceasing. Each gear tooth stands in for ideas: (money, engines, computation). Given, the implementation is important – how tight the teeth mesh with one another, the taught power behind the coiled spring.

But the true power of the clockwork is the concept itself, an engine driven by ideas, will and a little brow-sweat.

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